One can find two kinds of voters in this great city in the week before the presidential election; those Democrats who can see no possibility of defeat for Barack Obama next Tuesday, and those who wake with a jolt at 4am imagining he has lost, and feeling in their bowels the fear that something might happen in the next few days to stop the saviour of the United States from fulfilling his mission. I have yet to find a Republican, despite this being the city that returned Rudy Giuliani twice as mayor. But then it is hard to find anyone in the city that gave Hillary Clinton a big victory in February in the New York state primary who will now not admit to being a dyed-in-the-wool Obamamaniac. The fat lady has yet to sing, but, as far as New Yorkers are concerned, the show is over already.
They may well be right. The McCain camp says that its private polls show the race is far closer than those published by media organisations: but then it would, wouldn’t it? There is much anecdotal evidence that, at the grass roots in states where John McCain is not now campaigning (and even in one or two where he is), the fight has more or less stopped. After a good convention eight weeks ago in St Paul, the Republicans have lost the initiative at every turn. They had a bad financial crisis. Neither Mr McCain nor his running-mate, Sarah Palin, was able to land a killer blow in the televised debates. Things have reached the pass where Mrs Palin is having to protest that the haute couture on which $150,000 was spent to enhance her glamour belongs not to her, but to the Republican National Committee: and that she will now revert to shopping in the factory outlets of Alaska. After one has paused to consider just who on the RNC will be wearing Mrs Palin’s clothes next, one realises just how much this pathetic squabble signals that the game is almost certainly up.
Visiting from Britain, one senses just how like the spring of 1997 it is. Obama supporters often bridle at comparisons with Tony Blair, though why they should mind being lumped with a man who won three elections handsomely, inflicted serious change (for better or worse) on the country he governed, and put his opponents off the map for at least a dozen years is beyond me. Perhaps they are sensitive to the triumph of Mr Obama’s image over his content, to the accusations that his media management, with its brutal threats to journalists who cut up rough, belies the image of integrity that they seek to disseminate, and to the unspoken difficulty that, when and if Mr Obama gets into the White House, the magnificence of his rhetoric and the vast extent of his oratorical skills will do little to help him tackle an economy in the tank and a precarious international situation.
However, the Obama camp need not worry about any of this, because it appears most of the electorate don’t. The voters’ decision appears to have been simple: that George W. Bush, when he becomes history in January, should for the time being take the Republican party with him. Mr McCain has been at pains to distance himself from Mr Bush since before he won the nomination, and has had the facts mostly on his side in doing so.
However, that has failed to penetrate the souls of many voters. Polls in states that returned Mr Bush in 2004 now show Mr Obama far in front. Mr McCain is even at risk of losing Virginia, which is a little like the Tory party being wiped out in Surrey. The evidence that American voters have had enough is becoming more abundant. Mr Obama can capitalise on a lethal cocktail of economic hardship and, among the more outward-looking of his fellow citizens, a deep and pervasive embarrassment at how America is now seen around the world.
There is, though, no euphoria about what most of America feels to be his imminent election. It is, rather, a sense of relief at their being about to be shot of a discredited administration and a dismal president. Again, it should remind us of 1997, when Mr Blair surged to power not so much on a national wave of faith in him, but because so many Conservatives stayed at home and declined to shore up his inadequate opponent, the incumbent.
Here, the incumbent party is run ragged, too. It is fashionable to blame Mrs Palin for this, but the truth is that she is by far the more impressive of the two candidates on her ticket. She speaks directly to her audience, has conviction and charisma and is not trying to be something she isn’t. Ever since the convention John McCain has pretended not to be John McCain, and it just hasn’t worked.
In the circumstances of such a poor campaign by the Republicans, Mr Obama has not been pressed to outline how he would govern. All that has mattered is that he is not what has come before, or like what has come before. In these past days there have been attempts by his opponents, and especially by conservatives, to paint him as a socialist because of his talk of "spreading the wealth". His opponents are correct: he is, by the lights of all his rhetoric, an orthodox Leftist with an ill-formed notion of redistribution of income.
But it no longer matters. The mood here is to get the people who have run America for the past eight years out, and get in someone completely different. The time to discuss what, in their turn, they would do would come once they are there. This is far from ideal, for that is what election campaigns are supposed to be for. But in the unusual predicament of an America that feels weakened, embarrassed and angry, it has become nearly inevitable.
The last time the American economy was on the ropes to the extent it is now a whole industry of escapism grew up, and produced such gems as Gold Diggers of 1933. You might remember that the plot of that charming film was a millionaire putting on a musical that saved countless Broadway hoofers from the soup-kitchen during the Great Depression.
Barack Obama is the Busby Berkeley of modern America. He is ordained as the great choreographer who will spirit America out of its misery, using not his own millions but the billions of the taxpayer to put the country back on course. Having listened all year to his message of "change", and being entirely unclear what it means, perhaps at last we have the answer. It is The Great Cause Of Cheering Us All Up.
The reverence with which Mr Obama is regarded by most of the American media, and by much of the American elite, is such that, when I see him on television, I look — so far in vain — for the stigmata on his hands. This feeling is entirely appropriate, for what America seems to be preparing to embark upon is the most massive act of faith. Not since 1960, and the election of Jack Kennedy, has so much disbelief been suspended by so many in such a massive cause. If it does indeed translate into an Obama victory on Tuesday, further prayer may well be in order. Not long after Gold Diggers of 1933, I seem to remember, came The Grapes of Wrath.
© The Telegraph Group